True innovation
5 Companies Changing the Energy Landscape
Sheryll Poe | May 5, 2014

It used to be that energy was the domain of the big guys: state companies or large multinational corporations. Think huge build outs of infrastructure and plants, massive amounts of capital, and long, long lead times before anyone saw a profit.

Not anymore.

The future of clean energy is here and an explosion of innovation has resulted in a slew of startups that are developing products and services aimed at squeezing every last drop of efficiency from our energy resources.

Solar power and wind power are among the top 10 industries for investors, rating high on revenue growth and capital intensity, according to IBIS World U.S.  So it was no surprise that many of the startups competing in the energy category at the Challenge Cup pitch competitions were small companies with big ambitions.

To recap: A team from Washington D.C. incubator, 1776, traveled to 16 cities around the world to find the best startups in the most regulated industries, including education, health care, smart cities and energy. Sixty-four winning startups from those 16 competitions will converge on Washington D.C. the week of May 12-17 to participate in the Challenge Festival and compete to win the Challenge Cup championship title and $650,000 in prizes. (Still confused or want more details? Check out this video)

It’s going to be pretty insane. And FreeEnterprise.com is along for the ride.

The 16 Challenge Cup competitors in the energy category will electrify the stage on May 13 with products and services that could radically alter how we create, and consume, power. From a robot that cleans solar panels to kinetic energy storage, here are five Challenge Cup competitors developing some promising innovations in energy.

1.      With 240 million cars on the roads right now and 23 million more projected every year, China has quite the pollution problem. That’s where Beijing Challenge Cup winneJ&F Technology comes in. J&F Technology cofounder Jason Wang and his team have developed a plug-in device called EcoDrive, which hooks into a car’s diagnostic system and delivers real-time feedback to mobile phones. “In China we have two issues. We have old cars that consume a lot of oil and petrol. The other problem is that when fuel does not burn efficiently, the exhaust from the car has a lot of pollution. This machine will tell you about your pollution and give you an indication of how to improve it. It will help with fuel consumption, engine power and improve efficiency,” Wang tells 1776.

2.      Maybe you prefer not to drive at all, in which case Chicago Challenge Cup winner myPower might be a product for you. MyPower is a running companion that clips to your hip and captures and stores your kinetic energy as you run. Forty-five minutes of running with myPower can give your iPhone an extra seven to eight hours of battery life, and running with myPower for a year can offset the carbon footprint of both itself and the device you charge with it. 1776 caught up with the cofounders—Tejas Shastry, Michael Geier, and Alexander J. Smith—who recently won $75,000 at Chicago’s Clean Energy Challenge. MyPower is planning to release a beta version of their unit this summer, with a goal of a broader release in 2015.

3.      General Electric just announced plans to invest $24 million in India’s largest solar-powered plant, but getting solar energy to everyday citizens remains a major challenge. Sujith S. Thannikkatt, cofounder of Longman Suntech Energy is working to change that by leasing rooftop solar panels to Indian citizens in order to provide them with clean, renewable energy at no extra cost to the users. The New Delhi Challenge Cup winner tells 1776: “There are several reasons why people aren’t taking up solar. One is that there is a huge capital cost. Secondly, it’s fairly new technology so people are a bit skeptical. Finally, there are tax incentives, which…are not properly planned by the government. We found that many of our prospective clients were not able to understand the financial benefits of solar power. They subsidize other forms of power in tax credits so they can write off the tax.”

4.      Longman Suntech might find the technology from fellow competitor Solarbrush useful. The Sao Paulo Challenge Cup winner manufactures robots designed to clean and maintain solar panels, boosting their effectiveness, lowering costs for maintenance, and saving precious water in arid regions. “Cleaning is very important, especially in arid regions, as generators lose up to 35% in efficiency in a single month after a sand storm,” inventor Ridha Azaiz tells 1776. “The robot has a very lean and efficient drive that attaches to the inclined panels, which distinguishes the Solarbrush robot from others. Some say it is the ‘Roomba’ for solar panels.”

5.    Keith Cole, CEO of Houston-based startup Titralyte, describes his Water Lens oilfield kit as “a product that turns roughnecks into chemists.” The Water Lens provides detailed analysis of water and other fluids used during the fracking process at oil and gas drilling sites. By placing a water sample into a tray filled with Water Lens’ specialized chemical formula, and then placing the tray in a machine equipped with software, anyone on the site can analyze the contents of the water, saving oil and gas companies millions of testing dollars. The Challenge Cup Austin winner tells 1776: “Our product is specifically designed to test complex, challenging fluids, such as those found in oil and gas—and mining. We can find the proverbial needle in a haystack.”

All 16 energy finalists will be participating in the Energy Semfinals on Tuesday, May 13 here in Washington D.C. See a bracket of all the competitors here.